Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film

A comprehensive if uncritical overview of the U.S. horror genre.

A comprehensive if uncritical overview of the U.S. horror genre, Andrew Monument’s “Nightmares in Red, White and Blue” lends screen form to Joseph Maddrey’s book of the same title. Sure to become a broadcast staple each Halloween, this slick docu is getting a “semi-theatrical” release from Fox Lorber, playing scattered venues this summer; it was released VOD on July 1.

Starting with the 1910 adaptation of “Frankenstein” (which flopped), pic takes a more or less strictly chronological approach, structured by thematic chapter titles identifying cinematic horror trends over the decades. Maddrey’s narration (sonorously voiced by genre fave Lance Hendriksen) identifies various trends as responses to national crises and anxieties: The physical grotesques played by Lon Chaney in the 1920s channeled discomfort with the large number of maimed WWI veterans, radiation-created monsters in the ’50s reflected fear of the bomb, etc.

Horror didn’t really take off until Universal gambled on “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” in the early ’30s. Pic recounts how the studio was so nervous about the former’s chances that it billed it as “The Strangest Love Story Ever Told!” with no hint of supernatural content in original ads. Its exercises for vampire, werewolf, mummy and Frankenstein grew sillier in the 1940s, increasingly targeting kids, while Val Lewton’s psychologically focused thrillers at RKO introduced subtler, more adult forms of suspense.

Maddrey and interviewees recall how the Cold War’s “atomic fear cloud” blanketed the sci-fi-focused 1950s. A new turn toward “savage cinema” was joltingly signaled by Hitchcock’s “Psycho” on the high end and Herschell Gordon Lewis’ drive-in surprise package “Blood Feast” on the low; “Feast’s” unprecedented extreme gore resulted in arrests and confiscations at some venues.

Docu notes how game-changers such as “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Exorcist,” “Jaws,” “The Omen” and “Alien” brought massive mainstream acceptance to the often marginalized genre. Meanwhile, low-budgeters such as “Night of the Living Dead,” “Last House on the Left” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” upped the ante for horrific content while obliquely commenting on the many sociopolitical divisions of the Vietnam War/Watergate era.

The slasher subgenre officially launched with 1978’s “Halloween,” whose helmer, John Carpenter (one of several leading genre specialists interviewed here), says he never understood why “I was criticized for punishing sexually promiscuous teenage girls.” A subsequent montage of sexually active teens being punished in “Friday the 13th” films really underlines that the docu should have included at least one female commentator, since slasher films in particular have been accused of expressing violent misogyny.

The ’80s homevideo explosion helped generate more adventuresome efforts such as Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” and Stuart Gordon’s “Re-Animator.” (Frank Henenlotter is strangely overlooked.)

While the focus is primarily on well-known titles and directors, pic does take time to spotlight a few lesser-known gems, such as Bob Clark’s “Deathdream” (1974) and David Cronenberg’s marvelous feature debut, “Shivers,” from the next year; international horror, however, is just briefly touched on.

Things are brought up to date with the current riot of remakes and torture-porn exercises such as the “Saw” series; brief commentary on the xenophobia expressed in “Hostel” reps one of the docu’s rare instances of unflattering analysis.

Fanboys all, the various helmers and other commenters prove invariably entertaining. Clips utilized are mostly high-grade, assembly brisk and colorful.

Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film

  • Production: A Fox Lorber release of a Lux Digital Pictures presentation of a Midnight Movies production. Produced by Joseph Maddrey. Executive producer, Ingo Jucht. Directed, edited by Andrew Monument. Screenplay, Joseph Maddrey, based on his book.
  • Crew: Camera (color/B&W, HD), Mike Bratkowski; music, Paul Casper; sound, Larry Goeb, James Cret Wilson; associate producer, Robert Valding. Reviewed on DVD, San Francisco, July 4, 2010. (In Deauville, Sitges, Another Hole in the Head film festivals.) Running time: 86 MIN.
  • With: With: Darren Lynn Bousman, John Carpenter, Larry Cohen, Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Dennis Fischer, Mick Garris, Tom McLoughlin, John Kenneth Muir, George A. Romero, Tony Timpone, Brian Yuzna. Narrator: Lance Hendriksen.